Experts in Grace

An art dealer in Florida has been charged by federal agents with wire fraud, money laundering, and mail fraud. It seems he sold fake art works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and other well-known artists for millions of dollars. The dealer supposedly purchased one fake work by Basquiat on a website for $495 and sold it to an undercover agent for $12 million. His extensive fraud was uncovered after technology revealed the signatures on the art were false and examinations by art experts collaborated that the works were not originals. However, the dealer assured purchasers that he stood behind the work in his gallery 100 percent and that each purchase was a fabulous deal.

Forgeries have been with us, but the Internet gives the cheater easier access to those who may not have the knowledge to determine if an item is authentic.  However, what if the offering is not a concrete item like a work of art? What if the offering is a promise formed out of words from a respected community member like a teacher or religious leader? How does one not believe someone that is so revered?

In my career as a teacher of literature and writing, I would at times deliberately lie or make an outlandish claim to my students.(For instance: Romeo was too old for Juliet.)  I did this in order to teach them that a teacher was not infallible, and they should not accept as a cardinal truth everything a teacher said. In that small way, I was hoping to teach them that they were responsible for their educations. They had the text and were required to read it and draw their own conclusions based on the text.

Like teachers, religious leaders have influence, even power, over people. They can sway the way people think and act. Just as I did with Shakespeare, a religious leader can use a holy text to teach. However, what if that teaching is that all infidels should be killed, or the holy city of Jerusalem should be rid of all non-Christians. What if a religious leader taught that homosexuals deserve to lose civil rights or that only one political leader deserves a vote?

Christians have the Bible and its teachings. We can read and study the Gospels to guide us. We have the examples of Jesus. The written words of James, Paul, and other writers can instruct. We should read and study those lessons and upon hearing some “pastor” tell us that anyone not in agreement with what he or she shouts from the pulpit is to be despised and shunned, we should go to John 4 and read Jesus talking with the woman who was such an outcast that she had to go to  the village well at noon, in the heat of the day. But she, the Samaritan woman, encountered a Jewish man who spoke to her with kind words.

The Text is our expert guiding us in what we believe and how we act. That Text will reveal any forgery blabbering from a pulpit of lies and misinformation.

Robert’s Lesson

One of my favorite hunting stories is told by my friend Robert and it happened when he took his grandson for the first time on a yearly family visit to rural Kansas.

Robert took his oldest grandson to introduce him to his Kansas relatives. As imagined, much talk took place over bountiful meals and the young teenager was enjoying himself. Robert and some other males of the Kansas family had hunted prairie dogs in past summers to reduce any infection of the rodents, which was a nuisance for the farming family. Robert, a skilled hunter, was asked to help thin one of the coteries , and his grandson wanted to go on the hunt. Robert helped his grandson find a good location from which to see and shoot the rodents, and he took the rifle Robert handed him, but when Robert gave him a single bullet, the boy looked at it with surprise and asked was that all. Robert told him, “We’re shooting, not spraying. Now hunt!”

Following the massacre in Robb Elementary School, I have read the words of two elected officials defending the ownership of the AR-15 assault rifle. A senator from Louisiana justifies having such a rifle in his state because it is needed to shoot wild hogs. Now I know that a wild hog is a ferocious animal and even deadly, and I did a simple Google search for the best weapon to use to kill feral hogs. No list included the AR-15. As if that were not enough, a congressman from Colorado justified the ownership of AR-15s in his state because they were needed to kill racoons that were killing local chickens. Once again, in a simple Google search for the best weapon to kill those pesky racoons, no mention was made of an AR-15.

My searches showed some hunters who profess their preference for the AR-15 for a multitude of  reasons. However, the fact that the gun is designed and made to kill humans should outweigh anyone’s preference, especially when any hunter has a buffet of other choices for the killing.

My friend Robert’s lesson in giving his grandson one bullet was a powerful one telling his grandson that hunting was based on shooting; explaining the difference between shooting and spraying is one from which all hunters could benefit. Learn to shoot, then hunt and not butcher it on the hoof.

     Rhetoric

Words matter, and that is why advertisers, lawyers, religious leaders, and politicians usually are careful of their chosen words. The words used can convince a consumer to make a purchase, persuade a jury of peers, encourage a congregation to work at being better individuals, or believe a particular way. A skilled writer can use chosen words to sway a reader or listener to a new way of thinking. Words matter because they move their audience and elected leaders are masters at using words to do that. Patrick Henry’s  words “Give me liberty or give me death”, not only moved a state government in 1775, but they are also still used today to inspire. However, the speech he gave that day should be read for more than those oft-quoted words. In arguing for a state militia he says to his opponents in the Second Virginia Convention,  “But different men often see the same subject in different lights,” which is a powerful but eloquent way of saying, “I don’t agree with you.”

Henry is one of our Founding Fathers who used his words to argue for what he saw as the best path in building a nation—from scratch. He and all the other Founding Fathers (and Mothers such as Mrs. Adams) had various views, but they used rhetoric to help form our great democracy. Yet, all their building was done in years of turmoil, but they came to compromise  through words of persuasion, not vulgar ones of violence. But our current political climate, while rife with disagreements like that of the Founders, is full of vulgar and violent rhetoric. Now, instead of persuading words, we have bombast and worse.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, a democrat from Arizona wrote these words on Tweeter to express his disagreement with a senator: “F*** you @tedcruz you care about a fetus but you will let our children get slaughtered. Just get your a** to Cancun. You are useless,”

The Lt. Governor of North Carolina, Mark Robinson, explained his opinion on guns this way: “I got them AR-15s in case the government gets too big for his britches because I’m going to fill the backside of them britches with some lead, “I’m going to say it to you plain. Your boy ain’t going down without, he isn’t going down without swinging.”

Words should accomplish something, but Galleo’s public vulgarity only offend and disappoint. They do not show disagreement but attack in a vile fashion. They are shameful.

While Robinson does not use the vulgarity of Galleo, his words express a false bravado in a phony down-home manner that he hopes will appeal to a base populous. His words are a good example of condoning violence without using violent language. They, too, are shameful.

While few of us can speak like Patrick Henry and other great people, we all should aspire to. We should all strive to use words that persuade and motivate. We  should express our disagreement with policies and beliefs in carefully chosen words and not attack. We should seek discourse not discord. All of this is an expectation for any citizen. However, a greater expectation is hoped for from community and national leaders. Because of their position, certain people like teachers, clergy, and elected officials need to set an example of excellence not one of ugly filth.

My mother used many country sayings to teach us children lessons. One of her favorites was, “You can catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.” While some of her sayings were more difficult to understand and apply to daily life on the mill-hill, all us children understood what our mother was teaching us by this one.

President Obama told us that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

He and my mother speak a truth that we all need to follow.

Open Caskets

In 1955 when the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till arrived home to Chicago, the only thing that identified him was a ring. His swollen body was missing teeth, an ear was severed, and an eye hung out after he had been kidnapped, tortured, shot, wrapped in barbed wire attached to a heavy fan, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River by two white men in Money, Mississippi.

His mother, Ms. Elizabeth Till-Mobley, saw the body of her only child and made a courageous decision. She told the mortician to leave her son as he was and insisted on an open casket so that all the world could see the horrific acts committed against her son by white men.

            Now, here we are all these years later and more children and their teachers have again been brutally murdered. Young, small, precious bodies in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas so mangled by bullets that DNA is needed to identify some of them. Mutilated like the body of Emmett Till.

            The photographs we see of the victims are ones made in happier times like when a 10-year-old holds a certificate for making his school’s honor roll. Or a photograph of a smiling teacher likely taken for the school web page. Happy faces. Clean clothes. Life at its fullest. No photographs of mutilated bodies, body parts separated from their body, blood, and gore.

            Open caskets! Awful and even grotesque when they show the result of the carnage caused  against a 75-pound body by an AR-15 rifle.

            Perhaps it is time for another brave decision such as the one made by Ms. Till.

Walkers

I am not writing about people who walk for exercise and are referred to as “walkers.” I am writing, instead, about the support devices that many elderly or needy people use to help them walk from place to place. You probably have seen them in stores, restaurants, and other such public spaces. The simple invention is a “life-saver” to those who need more than a cane to walk about safely as they hold onto the two bars and push the three-sided walker to where they want to go. While the original model was somewhat bulky with its stiff three sides, the newer models fold neatly, thus taking up less room when not in use. With all this in mind, I was taken aback recently when a woman complained to my wife that she was tired of walking around two such walkers on her way to communion during our church services. It seems that two elderly parishioners like to sit next to the main isle of our church with their walkers folded/unfolded against the pew next to them. The parishioner said to my wife, “I don’t see why the ushers don’t move those things out of the way. I’m tired of walking around them on my way to communion,”

A T 5-6 paraplegic, I use a wheelchair and am conscious of taking more public space than a walking/standing person. Restaurants are especially fraught with issues of space, and if I  sit in a booth I always allow the staff to move my wheelchair out of the isle.  However, in doing so I disregard the ADA regulation stipulating that all wheelchairs must be next to their user in case of an emergency. The same reasoning should be applied to a walker and its user.

However, as legal or logical as the ADA rule is,  the woman’s complaint concerns church space, not secular space like a restaurant, and that, in my view, changes the calculus of her objection.

Churches are places for sinners but while in church a sinner should not act like one. If we think of  the ten original commandments and the “new commandment” given to us in John 15:12 our church behavior and words would be more compassionate and understanding. If we are truly in church to become better followers of Christ, then we would not complain but comfort. After all, any obstacle like a walker or a wheelchair or an “old, rugged cross” in our path to communion is a blessing.

Things to Worry

      This Saturday morning’s heat and humidity are too much, so I am staying in the comfort of our home trying to read the paper, but the litany of issues facing me keeps coming to mind. Just yesterday I had to pay over $4.00 a gallon for gasoline. Earlier this week our grocery bill was $170.00 for a few bags of food, and my wife told me that the grocery store can no longer obtain and stock my favorite apple. The clamoring over cultural wars grates on my nerves, and politicians continue to campaign on anything but an issue. I am tired of COVID. I also tire of shootings and murder on our streets. The southern border has been a mess for years, and no leader that I can see has a solution. The whining Supreme Court Jurists sound like spoiled children, and speaking of children, when will our infants have a ready supply of formula? I keep hearing about the January 6 Committee but wonder when something of substance will come from it, or will it be a fizzle like the Muller report?

This is quite a bit for a retired educator to face, but as I re-read my list of issues and the daily news,  I became thankful  that the democracy under which I live is safe and that no enemy threatens America. I relax, knowing that we are safe. For now.

Roots and Evil

For five years we have endured the bumps in our driveway caused by, what we thought, were pine tree roots growing beneath the asphalt. One bump in particular was “admired” by neighbors and us as we watched it expand and begin to open at its top. It had expanded so much that, if I was not careful when driving in, my van’s frame would rub against it. However, yesterday the old driveway was removed by a skilled man using a Bobcat, and I eagerly asked him about what I suspected was a massive knot of pine tree roots heaving the asphalt. He said, “I didn’t have a bucket’s worth of roots. I’ve seen that before,” he continued, “when some little roots cause a lot of pressure in clay dirt where water collects. It’s the mix of water and clay that pushes up caused by a small root growing. Ain’t that something. Not even a bucket’s worth.”

Since that conversation with the Bobcat operator, I’ve been thinking about all the years my wife and I had adjusted to the bumps in our driveway, and how we even began referring to them as our speed bumps. We warned visitors about them because they were so large, and when we contracted for the new driveway, we hoped that the excavation did not kill any of our beloved pine trees by removing their roots. Yesterday’s conversation with the Bobcat operator calmed that worry, but the root’s reminded me of what I had known but forgotten.

The roots are a metaphor for evil. While the ones beneath the heaved-up driveway were smaller than anticipated, they had pressured the wet clay which in turn pushed against the asphalt, causing our speed bumps. They, like evil, had done their work: Slow and steady growth, often hidden from view, but persistently working to cause upheaval and damage in our lives.

Six Words

 It is said that the American writer Ernest Hemingway first penned the six-word story which fully captures all the emotion and action of a longer one. Hemingway’s story was this, “Baby shoes for sale: never worn.” Those six words certainly capture all that any longer story could.

The recent epidemic of gun violence leads me to write this six-word story, “Another American day: Shooter, gun, victims.”

Qohelet Knew

Near my stationary bike is a bird box which is fastened to one of the 42 pines trees in our front yard. In years past the nesting box has been occupied by titmice, but this year a brown-headed nuthatch pair claimed it. The small birds are busy with their brood, and I marvel as I watch the parents come and go with morsels in their beaks. As I ride for my morning workout, I watch them and listen as they call to each other.

Yet the front yard with its many tall pine trees is not all life. After last weekend’s storm, I have found five robin hatchlings under various trees that had been blown out of their nests high in the pines. This is a yearly result of spring storms, but even after my fifth season of finding small bodies on the ground, it still saddens me. However, during such times I find that the words of Qohelet ease the sorrow: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Riding and watching the nuthatches feed their hatchings, I see a robin fly into a tree under which I found one small robin body. Curiously I watch it and  try to locate its nest high in the pine tree, but I lose sight of it in the green needles. But wait, there is more life on the ground under the same tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker attacks the ground. It pecks furiously and tuffs of dirt arch into the air to land nearby. The searcher stands in one place and pecks, then hops to another spot and pecks again and again. It assaults the ground, puffs of dirt fly about, and I resolve to later inspect that postage stamp of yard under a pine tree. But as suddenly as it appeared the woodpecker leaves to search for some morsel in other earth or dead wood.

Robins. Woodpeckers. Brown-headed nuthatches. So much living wrapped in the sweet, spring fragrance of the Ligustrum across our road. From its topmost branches a mockingbird proves Atticus Finch correct, and during my morning workout I am privileged to observe so much life in the pine forest we call our front yard.

Student Handbooks

As a recent volunteer for the Mooresville Graded School District, I was required to watch a brief presentation concerning what to/what not to do when interacting with students, and I was given a copy of the 2021-2022 Student Code of Conduct to read.

Because I had spent many years as the administrator in various independent schools responsible for the revision of student handbooks, I was eager to read the MGSD one. That may sound like dull reading to the uninformed, but during my years as an educator I have learned that  a student handbook is a window into a school or school system. I was not disappointed in my reading of the MGSD handbook, but I was saddened and disappointed.

The independent schools in which I worked and supervised the yearly revision of student handbooks were smaller than MGSD so the handbooks for them were smaller but shared the same objective: Inform students and parents, in a clear way, the expectations for students and consequences if expectations are not followed. The MGSD handbook does that well, and then some, which is an example of how we now require so much non-educational work of our schools.

The MGSD handbook is a 48-page 8.5 x 11-inch booklet with 4 inserted pages and covers all three school divisions for its  6,074 students, parents, and guardians. The expectations for students cover such anticipated areas for an educational institution as: Dress code, fighting, attendance, bus behavior, role of teachers and administrators, and other areas of the life in an educational setting. But an educational institution in today’s world must go further and include rules concerning: Extortion, gambling, violations of state criminal statutes, assault or threats against adults,  possession of dangerous weapons, and other issues of our modern world that have invaded our schools. That invasion demands non-educational work of our schools.

Any HR person will tell you that clearly stated expectations and consequences for behavior make a work place better, and schools are workplaces which owe such clear statements to their teachers, students, parents, guardians, and administrators. But in reading the MGSD handbook, I was saddened to read 48 pages that has much which should, in my view, be handled by families, law enforcement, social workers, judges, or other institutions of our culture. Yet, because a school system must protect itself against the very other institutions it serves, it is forced to include such topics as homicide (page 34) in its student handbook.

It seems to this retired educator that our public schools are burdened with too many requirements placed on them from people outside of education, such as the politicians who take every chance to use any act by a teacher or school administrator to “whip-up” a base. This week I saw an article where non-educators were questioning the practice of withholding recess as a motivating tool for some classrooms. I fear that soon some state legislator will sponsor a bill that all children must be given recess for prescribed times or the opposite is possible—sponsor a bill that deems recess a waste of taxpayer funds. You get the point. After all, why spend funds on all that expensive equipment?

But this is where we are: A relatively small school district like the MGSD must publish each year a 48 page plus handbook of student conduct. Since some factors change often, such as school hours or dress styles, a handbook needs to be revised each year. That is difficult enough and much like playing the Wack-A-Mole game. However, when so many topics like homicide need to be included, in order to protect the schools from its constituents, it is a sad day for our public schools.